Feature: Hearts Healed Through Relay

 

Dr. Jamie Byrne-McCollum has served a number of roles with the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life and is the campus advisor for a Little Rock chapter of a college-based relay event. She had no idea, however, that decades later she’d still be participating, and for deeply personal reasons.

Photography by Sara Blancett Reeves

 

Most of the incredible things in my life have come about because of my former students,” said Dr. Jamie M. Byrne-McCollum.

Byrne-McCollum, a career educator, is a professor in the School of Mass Communication at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UALR). Her expertise in public relations — and a desire to honor loved ones — served as the gateway to her incredible decades-long association with the American Cancer Society (ACS).

Honoring Loved Ones

“I owe my career to a severed thumb,” she said, smiling. “I was a grad assistant at Murray State University in Kentucky, helping build a new set for the campus news station, when the professor I worked with severed his thumb. As a result, his right hand was in a cast,” she said as she demonstrated, her hand raised as if permanently waving “hello.”

“So I taught his classes. I really enjoyed it. [And], here we are 30 years later … which is kinda scary because I’m only 24,” she quipped.

She officially began her career in 1984 at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville; she served there for four years before accepting a position at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. During her stints at these universities, Byrne-McCollum suffered two losses. Her youngest brother’s wife, Pam, died of bladder cancer.

“That was hard. They had a 2-year-old daughter. Pam waged a difficult 18-month battle,” she said.

Just months later, Byrne-McCollum’s father passed due to a combination of heart disease and some type of cancer (they never found out which). “I had a lot of grief and a huge sense of loss,” she said. Then six months later, she got a call from a former student, Terry Boyle Kraft. “She was working for the local chapter of the American Cancer Society in Lancaster County, Pa., and needed help promoting their Relay for Life (RFL). I thought ‘Ah-ha! Here’s a way for me to do something with my grief. I can personally help make sense of my father’s and my sister-in-law’s passing.’”

So she jumped in headfirst to promote the event.

A Worldwide Worthy Cause

With their combined efforts, as well as those of other volunteers, participation in the event grew from 67 teams to more than 200 teams. “The people of Lancaster County eat and sleep this event, and they do a lot of events leading up to Relay. It’s a big effort. Cancer survivors, people who’ve lost loved ones and just everyone comes out to work,” Byrne-McCollum said.

Dr. Jamie M. Byrne-McCollum

Dr. Jamie M. Byrne-McCollum

RFL events are held in more than 6,000 communities in the United States and raise more than $400 million annually. In fact, Byrne-McCollum said, more than $5 billion has been raised in the United States since RFL’s inception in 1985.

“Relay for Life is all about the mission: research, patient services, survivorship and education. It is the signature activity of the ACS. The organization raises funds for all types of cancer, which is important — not to take away from other organizations,” she said.

ACS is the largest, non-governmental funder of cancer research. The organization also assists patients and their families with free transportation to and from treatment facilities; offers free lodging; and hosts centers with licensed cosmetologists who teach patients about skin care, makeup application and wig fittings, in addition to providing wigs through its Look Good, Feel Better program.

“We have 67 RFL events in Arkansas annually,” said Sherri Jones, ACS Little Rock’s senior representative market manager, community engagement. “Relay is the world’s largest fundraising event to fight every type of cancer. There are RFLs in 24 countries, including the United States, and 4 million participants across the world.”

The majority of RFL events last six to 24 hours. Teams, which can be made up of families, companies, church groups, schools, etc., raise funds throughout the year, and Relay, according to Jones, is kind of a year-end celebration.

“While each community is different, generally Relay is held like a track relay; it’s a walking activity. Each RFL has an opening ceremony and a survivors lap, and some communities open their Relay by recognizing the survivors and their caregivers,” Jones said. “Each RFL has a Luminary Ceremony during which participants read the names of loved ones who have cancer or [have] died from cancer — the names have been written on the bags. It’s very moving.”

Colleges Against Cancer

According to the ACS website, there are “Relay events for everyone.” Besides the community-based RFL, there are high school relays; Bark for Life events; and, in Arkansas, Relay Field Days and Relay Recesses for elementary-aged children. While the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, Harding University and Arkansas State University have or have had RFL events, two colleges, the University of Central Arkansas and UALR, are sites of the ACS program Colleges Against Cancer, or CAC.

CAC participants host RFL events and focus on cancer education and advocacy. As Jones explained, “For instance, if there is an initiative in the state legislature that affects the colleges, such as a change in policy for smoking on campus, these students would be called upon to lobby the legislature and/or to work with the college administration.”

Markeyah Wilson, a cancer survivor and coordinator for UALR’s 2015 CAC event .

Markeyah Wilson, a cancer survivor and coordinator for UALR’s 2015 CAC event .

The CAC distributes information about healthy living and physical activity, and it stresses the benefits of survivorship through volunteering and helping others who have been diagnosed. The UALR CAC is coordinated by Markeyah Wilson.

Wilson, a senior studying child psychology, hales from West Helena, Ark., and has participated in RFL events since she was in middle school. She first participated in UALR’s RFL during her second year on campus, and, in 2013, she spoke at the event. For Wilson, RFL is personal — she’s a cancer survivor.

Wilson was diagnosed with nephroblastoma, also known as Wilms tumor, a cancer that starts in the kidneys and is most common in children ages 3 to 4. She was diagnosed when she was 6 years old.

“I most remember the pain. I felt as if I could feel the cancer as it spread. It was so painful I couldn’t sleep,” Wilson said.

She underwent chemotherapy and radiation. “I didn’t really understand what was going on. I just knew that I was sick, that I couldn’t leave the hospital and do what other kids do because I was sick.”

Wilson also remembers her excitement at learning she’d get a wig and fondly recalls the trip to Orlando and Walt Disney World that she and her family were given by the Make-A-Wish Foundation. “I vividly remember meeting the actors who portrayed Ariel, Esmeralda and Prince Eric from the movie ‘The Little Mermaid.’”

Each RFL is special to Wilson. “I truly appreciate all that takes place during RFL. For me, RFL is all about honoring and acknowledging the past, present and future. I walk for myself, for my relatives I’ve lost to cancer and for those who are still battling the disease. It really has become a part of me.”

Teamwork in Trying Times

When Byrne-McCollum became involved with ACS, so did her husband, Chuck. The two married in 1987 while she worked at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.

“We worked together so wonderfully. What one of us stumbled into the other did as well. When he got involved in community theater, I got involved. When I got involved in RFL, he got involved. He worked on the local newsletter, did audio/visual stuff, created photomontages and music mixes. It was one of the things that made us click. We were passionate about the same things. When we got involved with RFL, we never, ever dreamt cancer would affect us directly,” she said.

In 2006, Chuck was diagnosed with Stage 4 colorectal cancer. It was a serious diagnosis obtained after months of seeking answers. Looking back, Byrne-McCollum said they realized he’d begun to experience symptoms eight to 10 months prior. He experienced back pain; doctors thought it was a problem with his sciatic nerve and sent Chuck to physical therapy. He experienced some relief, but returned to the doctor. They found he was anemic, enough to warrant a blood transfusion. Doctors thought he had celiac disease, so he and Byrne-McCollum went on a gluten-free diet, which she said gave him a bit of relief. He began to lose weight, which they’d been trying to do.

“He looked phenomenal, but he was still not feeling well,” she said. “So the doctor did an intestinal biopsy. It came back negative for celiac. So the doctors said, ‘Let’s try the other end.’ They didn’t really expect to find anything.”

Chuck was only 46. There was no history of cancer in his family. He was healthy — he hadn’t missed a day of work in 14 years. “He was strong as an ox,” Byrne-McCollum said.

“My birthday was July 31, and Chuck was scheduled to have his first colonoscopy. Here he’d made me this beautiful birthday dinner and served it on fine china, and he had a goblet with chicken broth,” Byrne-McCollum said, smiling. “I remember thinking, instinctively, ‘This is probably going to be the last good birthday I’ll have.’ At this point, it was clear something was wrong.”

Chuck had five colonoscopies in a month. They all came back negative. “Thankfully, our GI guy was seasoned, and he said, ‘I know what I’m seeing. We really need to do a deep-needle biopsy.’”

“When the doctor sits you in a room with Kleenex, you know it’s bad news. He said ‘We think it’s cancer.’”

Byrne-McCollum said she played it cool in the room with Chuck, but she had a complete meltdown, talking to his sister on the phone in the restroom, where she sought refuge after hearing the news. Chuck’s sister, a massage therapist who lived in Kentucky, had a client who was best friends with a surgery oncologist at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS). He made a phone call, and they got an appointment at UAMS for the next morning.

Chuck began his treatments with a month of chemotherapy at CARTI, a cancer care and treatment provider in Little Rock. “They were simply amazing. They took such great care of us,” Byrne-McCollum said. “The nurses burned CDs of ‘80s music for Chuck to listen to during treatments. Who does that?”

That November, the couple renewed their vows for their 20th anniversary — “I’m so glad we did. I’ll always treasure that day,” she said.

With the doctors partnering with her, the quick-witted Byrne-McCollum went to every appointment with Chuck, managed his care and knew the protocol and side effects of chemo. In no time, CARTI staff members became friends to the couple. “They knew when we came in that disaster would soon ensue, because we had such fun. The room was always filled with laughter. We couldn’t have gotten better care anywhere else in the world.”

Chuck persevered during his treatments and worked until Dec. 27, 2009. For a long time, many of his coworkers didn’t’ realize he was sick, Byrne-McCollum said. Her coworkers at UALR rallied around her and provided moral support — the couple had no family close by. The then-dean of the school, Dr. Angela L. Brenton, was especially supportive, sometimes staying with Chuck when Byrne-McCollum had to leave. (Coincidentally, Brenton passed in May 2013 of pancreatic cancer.) And Dr. Jan Austin, assistant vice chancellor of Campus Life, “… basically kept me alive, bringing me healthy food and sitting with Chuck when I had to leave the hospital,” she said.

Byrne-McCollum’s soul mate died Jan. 26, 2010.

Parallel Paths

Roy “Mac” McCollum was living in Las Vegas when he met his wife, Louise, online, while she lived in Florida. They actually met in Little Rock, and, after marrying in July 2003, they moved to the capital city.

“Louise was probably one of the most happy-go-lucky people I’d ever seen. She was very giving and was very active in her church. She was also very artistic. She did a lot of crafts and could paint anything,” McCollum said. Describing their relationship, he said, “We traveled a lot. It was something she’d always wanted to do. She fell in love with seeing new people and new places.”

“Louise had two adult children, Stephanie and Frank, and when we married, they became my children,” McCollum said. They spent a lot of time together as a family, even vacationing together. “In fact, we took our first cruise as a family — kids, grandkids and all.”

The couple also participated in RFL, which was very personal for Louise.

“Stephanie had a friend working with the RFL in Maumelle, and she asked us to participate,” McCollum said. They did so happily. Louise had survived a bout with a reproductive cancer in her 20s. And her father died from cancer just three months after Louise and McCollum married.

“Early in 2007, Louise began to experience some symptoms similar to ones I’d had when I had an issue with my gall bladder,” McCollum said.

Louise saw their doctor, but “he missed it.” She continued to visit doctors, seeking a solution. It was three months before they “got a real, no-kidding diagnosis.”

McCollum said, “I’d become frustrated. I called the doctor and asked, ‘Am I being paranoid?’ Three days later we got the diagnosis. We went to a cancer center in Dallas to confirm it.”

Louise’s cancer was in a bile duct that meets the pancreas. Bile duct cancer, or cholangiocarcinoma, is a less common cancer, affecting about 4,000 people in the United States each year.*

Doctors initially gave Louise a 5-year survival rate of 5 to 20 percent. “Louise wasn’t hearing that. She was determined to live,” McCollum said. She had a Whipple operation, increasing that rate to 5 to 40 percent.

McCollum stayed by his wife’s side throughout her illness, just as Byrne-McCollum had with Chuck.

Sadly, Louise lost her battle with cancer Feb. 19, 2010 … just three weeks after Chuck died. It was also but one month after Louise received her diagnosis that her brother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and their mother passed about 18 months later due to brain cancer.

Fate (aka Chuck and Louise) Intervenes

In spring 2012, one of Byrne-McCollum’s students suggested she try online dating.

“I said, ‘What? That’s so not me. For one thing, I’m not sure I’m ready. Chuck was my soul mate. Besides, there are a lot of whackos out there.’ He said, ‘Just try it. If it doesn’t work, you can take your profile down. It’s doesn’t have to be an earth-shaking thing.’” He helped her set up her profile right then.

She said she went out with six or so guys. They were very nice, she said, but she couldn’t see herself having a life with any of them. “I thought maybe this was God’s way of saying I wasn’t ready. My profile was up for about six months. I was about to take it down when I saw this profile under MacAF. Could this be AF for Air Force? My father was in the U.S. Air Force.” She was intrigued.

Then she found out he’d lost his spouse to cancer. “I’d found a kindred spirit. He wasn’t threatened when I talked about Chuck, and I wasn’t threatened when he talked about Louise.”

McCollum had put his profile online just about the same time Byrne-McCollum did. Two years had gone by since Louise’s passing and he wanted to move forward, but certainly didn’t want to forget about his late wife.

“I dated with purpose,” McCollum said. “I dated a few ladies, but they weren’t right. I didn’t want to date for years and then settle down. When I met Jamie, we sat and talked … we had the same story. She understood everything I’d been through. She understood my experience, and I understood hers.”

They went on their first date right before Thanksgiving 2012.

Roy “Mac” McCollum and Dr. Jamie Byrne-McCollum

Roy “Mac” McCollum and Dr. Jamie Byrne-McCollum

“Our first date, we sat and cried the whole night. We talked about Chuck and Louise and everything. We were two lost souls, wandering around with our hearts in our hands. It’s like Chuck and Louise looked at us and said, ‘These poor fools … let’s put them together,” Byrne-McCollum said.

McCollum introduced a very nervous Byrne-McCollum to his and Louise’s children the next week. “I wanted him to be certain it was OK with his children. After all, it was only their third Thanksgiving without her,” she said.

The children welcomed her, and the couple married Nov. 30, 2013.

Now,  she said, “His children and grandchildren are my children and grandchildren, and this is a blessing I’ve never had since Chuck and I didn’t have children.”

The Relay Resumes

The McCollums share an affinity for Relay for Life, and it’s been a passion of Byrne-McCollum’s for decades. She’s chaired and co-chaired numerous RFL events and has served on dozens of advisory and training teams.  Her talent and dedication to RFL and ACS has been recognized numerous times. In fact, she was named a “Face of Cancer” in 2013 by the Central Arkansas ACS office and previously was part of an International Relay for Life Training Team and travelled internationally teaching teams to coordinate races.

“Cancer is the great equalizer. It transcends cultural and language barriers,” Byrne-McCollum said.

“We don’t want Chuck and Louise’s passing — or anyone’s — to be in vain. It’s important for Mac and me to make meaning of their loss. It’s important to keep their love and their legacies alive.”

Thus far, the couple has participated in five Relays, one back in Lancaster County, Pa., where it all began for Byrne-McCollum.

“Those folks really do live and breathe Relay,” McCollum said. Byrne-McCollum said this year’s race raised more than $700,000. “And the population is about 300,000, like that of the Little Rock metro area,” McCollum added.

For student-survivor Markeyah Wilson, RFL is also more than an activity; each one gives her an opportunity to reflect on her experience and to honor others. “Everyone has been touched by cancer,” she said. “I just want to spread the love and honor those who have [fought] cancer.”

The American Cancer Society provides a wealth of information, such as tips about healthy living; guidelines for screening, support and treatment referrals; and information about other organizations that provide cancer assistance. Log on to cancer.org or call (800) 227-2345 to learn more. For additional information about Relay for Life specifically, log on to relayforlife.org or contact your local ACS office.

*University of Southern California Center for Pancreatic and Biliary Diseases

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